If you were watching the movie version of the terrorism trial that ended Thursday in Miami, FL, you might walk out around the time the seven suspects take an oath to al-Qaeda in a warehouse. The scene would feel so contrived, such a low-budget mockumentary of itself, that you might not be able to stomach another second.
The fact that this videotaped scene was in reality the centerpiece of the government’s case against seven defendants accused of conspiring to wage war against America is a testament to the strange challenges of trying to preemptively prosecute the war on terrorism.
On Thursday, after nine days of deliberation, a jury acquitted one of the defendants, Lyglenson Lemorin, and gave up on the remaining six. The judge declared mistrials in those cases, and a new trial is scheduled for next year. It was a major loss for the government. In 2006, after the arrests, then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales heralded the arrests and warned that, if “left unchecked, these homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like al-Qaeda.”
The defendants in the Liberty City case (named after the poor Miami neighborhood where they lived), were members of the Moorish Science Temple, a sect that blends Islam, Christianity and Judaism and does not recognize the legitimacy of the U.S. government. (Moorish Science Temple leaders have since disavowed any links to the men.) On March 16, 2006, the men were recorded by the FBI vowing to be Islamic soldiers and to act at the direction of al-Qaeda, according to a motion filed by the government, which played the tape twice during the trial.
The evidence also included 12,000 recorded conversations — including one in which the leader of the ragtag group, Narseal Batiste, spoke of waging a “ground war” — surveillance photos some defendants took of federal buildings in Miami, wish lists of weapons and a request for $50,000 given to an FBI informant purporting to represent al-Qaeda.
We don’t know yet know why the jury decided not to convict anyone in this case. “It was a very difficult case with a lot of evidence,” jury foreman Jeffrey Agron, a school principal, told the Miami Herald. “People see evidence in different ways. There were different takes that people had.” It’s possible that jurors were struggling with the very thing that makes the Liberty City case so typical of the Justice Department’s war on terrorism: it feels phony.